Labirintet e Modernizmit

This is the ninth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. I am still in the process of planning several posts with actual content—that is, analysis, rather than simply more scanned texts—but they are still some ways off, and I wanted to go ahead and post today’s rather imposing volume. Nonetheless, the book’s visuality demands at least some analysis—and no doubt much more than I offer here.

L e M_cover

Today’s text is Labirintet e Modernizmit: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste by aesthetician Alfred Uçi. The copy of the book I own is the 1987 2nd edition of the book; I have flipped through the earlier edition of the book, which I believe is from 1978, but I’ve never had a chance to sit down and see exactly what was added to the subsequent version. First off, I don’t recall the original edition having much in the way of color illustrations (and the 1987 version certainly has several of those), but I could be wrong about that. Certainly some or all of the final chapter on “Postmodernizmi” must have been written for the second edition, but it is unclear to me precisely what other changes and additions were made.

Uçi (who continues to publish on aesthetics today) was one of the most prolific writers on art and literature in socialist Albania, and—together with writers like Tefik Çaushi and Andon Kuqali—he was one of the most sophisticated aestheticians and art critics of the period. His work, of course, carries a high ideological charge, and nowhere is this charge felt more directly than in this truly mammoth (over 400 pages) volume on The Critique of Modernist Aesthetics. (It was, nonetheless, to be dwarfed two years later by the 1989 publication of his three-volume Estetika; I understand that, in the postsocialist period, he has published another such multi-volume work on aesthetics in general.) I was first introduced to this book by the philosophy and literature teacher at the high school I taught at in Albania—at the time he showed it to me, I could barely read any Albanian, otherwise I might have been a bit horrified that he was using it as a reference for teaching a high school art history course—and I have always been fascinated by Uçi’s compendious (if decidedly one-sided) knowledge and presentation of the history of aesthetic modernism. Indeed, I would venture to say the book is more thorough (in its elaboration of different persons and movements), at least with respect to Modernism, than many texts now used in America to teach Modern Art.

While I think the content of Uçi’s book is certainly interesting and useful for understanding the context of Albanian socialist aesthetics, I think its form is much more interesting (and it is here that I would very much like to be able to compare the earlier edition to this post-Hoxha, late-80s one). As Alban Hajdinaj has written, “Alfred Uçi’s theoretical writings, from the 1970s, could very well have been called postmodernist in the context of our country.”[1] Indeed, it seems to me that Uçi’s book occupies precisely a time of “the deepening of crisis” (which is the title of the first section of the last chapter, on Postmodernism)—and this is particularly the case in the insistent presentation of the apparent (but always defeated) correspondence between text and image. Indeed, the book is perhaps one of the best illustrations (forgive the pun) I have seen of the overwhelming failure of images to precisely convey what the author wants them to, and both in relation to other images and to the text of the book.

The cover of the book is already a fascinating example of this: Standing tall next above the title Labirintet e Modernizmit is Sali Shijaku’s Vojo Kushi (1969), and placed precisely below him—as if it will receive the explosion of the grenade he is about to hurl downwards—is one of Malevich’s Suprematist Paintings, alongside of which appears the book’s subtitle: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste. However, Malevich’s painting has already been truncated, cut off perhaps to ensure that it remains subordinate to Vojo Kushi‘s violence both in its position and in its proportion.  Already on the cover, then, the book pathologically turns a kind of violence back on Modernism —pathologically, because throughout the text the book (like almost all moral condemnations of Modernism) accuses Modernism of precisely this kind of corporeal violence.

In one particularly telling comparison, Uçi places the Venus de Milo alongside an egg by Brancusi and declares “Before the works of antiquity, which celebrate the beauty and purity of mankind, Modernism puts forth, with cynicism, works that scoff at human dignity.” A few pages later, he blithely dismisses the Futurists by setting the Nike of Samothrace opposite Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space (1913) and simply asking “A human being in flight, or a bottle on a pedestal?” The problem with this strategy should be almost immediately obvious— Uçi wants these juxtapositions to be completely self-evident and self-transparent, to the point that sometimes he provides no aesthetic judgment whatsoever, simply placing (in another of my favorite examples) a seascape by Vangjush Mio above a work labeled simply “Op-Art.” The clustered color illustrations in the book seem to relate only vaguely (at least as far as I have been able to discern) to what Uçi specifically says in the text, and sometimes the black-and-white illustrations interspersed directly throughout the printed text perform—in their seemingly complete dissociation—precisely the function of high Surrealism (or else the best practices of postmodernism). An image of Kristaq Rama’s Shote Galica dropped right into the section detailing Kafka is brilliant precisely in the way it causes one to question precisely what kind of aesthetic response the book is aiming for in its use of image-paired-with-text.

To return to the examples of the Venus de Milo  and Bracusi, and the Nike of Samothrace alongside Boccioni: what is most striking about these comparisons of classical and Modern sculpture is the corporeal woundedness of the works Uçi chooses. Indeed, the comparison is decidedly morbid—in spite of Uçi’s caption, the reader is almost forcefully directed to think instead “The works of antiquity celebrated the beauty of humanity, but now they are broken, and Modernism reminds us of these wounds.”… Or even more straightforwardly in the case of the Nike: “A human being without a head, or a bottle on a pedestal.” Thus, even as Modernism is accused of abusing the human figure and destroying its body and its dignity in the move towards formalism, the evidence as presented is somehow unable to convincingly argue that there is any true wholeness to human being—in art or elsewhere. Above all else, Uçi’s text (and his use of images) seems to be profoundly unable to put forward an alternative. Of course, the text is in the form of a critique, rather than a celebration of—obviously—socialist realist aesthetics…but the fact that it does haphazardly throw in a few illustrations of (Albanian) socialist realist works only makes the relationship between these works and Modernism more confusing.  Even the cover image reads both as the undisputed triumph of socialist realism over Modernism and simultaneously as an assertion of the profound similarities between the compositional strategies of both.

It is perhaps simplest to say that I have rarely seen a book in which the image (here, the photographically reproduced work of art) fluctuates so aggressively between two positions somewhat analogous to studium and punctum. Uçi’s book constantly has something quite clear to say, but at the same time both the text and more assertively the images in their discontinuity with the text wound us, suggesting disorder, fallibility, misunderstanding, the slow and gradual accumulation of crisis beneath the veneer of ideological and epistemological certainty. Viewed in this way, it is unsurprising that the book (both in its first, 1978 edition and in this subsequent edition) struggles to chronicle the degeneration of modernism in precisely the years (the late 70s and 80s) when the situation in socialist Albania began to slip towards its own constellation of unravelings.

Happy reading!

[1] Alban Hajdinaj, “Piktura e Jetës Moderne,” in Onufri XVIII (Tirana: Galeria Kombetare e Arteve, 2012), 10.

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